“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.”
-2 Timothy 3:1-8 (emphasis added)
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This is the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism and I think it’s worth our consideration. Today many churches and Christians have this answer discombobulated. When translated to modern thought, it might more accurately say “God’s chief end is to glorify man and to enjoy him forever.” We as a culture have become ever more narcissistic and it’s effects are infiltrating the church. Sermons titles such as, “Barriers to Blessings,” “The Power of Potential,” “Your Dream is Your Destiny,” “You are Gifted,” “You Get What You Go For,” “It’s All About You,” and “Favor Is Looking For You,” seem to be discussing more about man than God (those are all real sermon titles from some of America’s most popular churches by the way). Service events, mission trips, or even simply helping others seem to be more about feeling good and taking selfies than actually aiding those in need. So what can we do? If the chief end of man is glorifying God and not himself how do we look past the mirror and selfie-stick towards Christ? How does He become greater while I become less (John 3:30)?
The Christian Narcissist
What is narcissism and why is it a problem both culturally and Biblically? The term narcissism comes from the greek myth of Narcissus who couldn’t stop looking at his own reflection to the point that he died. Biblically the root of narcissism is pride and idolatry of self. Narcissists see every situation in terms of how it affects themselves. They never see their problems as a result of their own actions, but rather excuse their behavior and blame others. The opposite is also true; when they succeed, narcissists take all the credit. This is the root of the problem: The self-centered man is never able to realize the sin in his life and his need for a savior. Rather than give thanks to God, the narcissist robs God of glory that is due to Him. The self-absorbed man is also unable to authentically love his neighbor since there will always be a self-centered ulterior motives in all his actions. The Christian narcissist is unable to worship the Lord because every part of their Christian life has become tainted with the question, “How does this benefit me?” This is why we see over 100,000 children in the U.S. awaiting adoption, in the midst of over 300,000 churches. We can’t see past our own noses to help those in need as James calls us to (James 1:27).
How have we let the trends of society influence the church? I think it’s largely based on what is being taught from the pulpit. We have exchanged expository preaching for topical fluffiness. The word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). We need the word properly preached in order to be awakened from our self-centered slumber (and to be brought from death to life). We also need to properly understand how to read and interpret the word during our own devotion, a skill that has also largely been ignored.
“That’s just your Interpretation”
‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ -Jeremiah 29:11
Part of the Christian Worldview is understanding that truth is not subjective, but rather objective. This means that truth is outside of our cultural identity, and is not subject to our personal feelings. That being said, we must understand that, while one biblical verse may have multiple applications, there is only one meaning/correct interpretation. Someone who says, “That’s just your interpretation,” denies that there is, in fact, a correct (and therefore a wrong) interpretation of any text. Perhaps even more frightening than accidentally misinterpreting scripture is, as Peter warns, that there are some who deliberately twist scripture to fit their own agendas (2 Peter 3:16). Since we have been entrusted with the Word of God, we must make great effort to ensure we are interpreting scripture correctly, and are being influenced by pastors who hold biblical interpretation in high regard.
One danger of personal interpretation is introducing our own presuppositions, agendas, and biases into the text. This is known as eisegesis. Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse where this is common practice. All you need to do is walk into any Christian bookstore and you will find hundreds of trinkets with this verse stamped on them. But who is Jeremiah really speaking to in this verse? Is he talking to Israel’s leaders who were in exile in Babylon? Is he talking to us? Or both? We must understand the literary genre in order to understand how to apply this verse. Is it poetic, wisdom literature, epistle, prophecy, historical narrative, etc? Because this verse within Jeremiah is written as historical narrative, it should be interpreted as such. Therefore, while God may plan to prosper us as believers, this particular verse is being addressed specifically to the leaders of Israel. God upheld his promise to the Israelites in this situation and throughout the rest of the Bible, and therefore the principle of God’s faithfulness is applicable to all. That is something as believers we can apply from this verse. What we must do is draw out the meaning from within the text (exegesis) instead of the other way around (eisegesis).
Eisegesis is all too common within the church today, and it has compounded our narcissistic tendencies. Christians tend to read the Bible more like fortune cookies than in its literary context. How often have we heard sermons about “stepping into your promised land” or “reaping what we sow,” promising us God’s financial blessing if only we sacrifice a little more on our tithe? How often have misguided Christians looked to scripture for comfort (which is not a bad thing) only to take a verse out of context, in an attempt to squeeze their particular situation into it? The sad reality is we have a tendency to exchange the beautiful overarching story of the Bible for a cheap chinese counterfeit. The blessing of one day being able to stand before the face of God, and be embraced as a child, is far greater than all health and wealth the world has to offer.
The Good News
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” -Ephesians 2: 4-10
The Bible is not about us, but rather it’s about God and His redemptive work in history through His people, His Son and His Spirit. This is good news. As the verse above says: before we come to know Christ we are spiritually dead. We don’t need self help on how we can “defeat the Goliaths in our lives” (which doesn’t at all help a dead person). We need to be resuscitated. The good news is that we don’t need to rely on ourselves or our performances to be in right relationship with God. If we attempt to do so, we will consistently fail. But thankfully, we have a humble Redeemer, who died on a cross for proud, self-seeking sinners like you and I. What is more humbling than that? There is nothing you or I did or can do to earn favor with God. Rather, His grace is freely given to us who cling to Christ and His works. This good news should help us stop worrying about ourselves and instead turn our focus to God and to our neighbors. Only the Gospel is the solution to our self-centeredness and narcissism, because it helps us realize it’s not about us, but what Christ has done for us.
*Sidenote: I myself have narcissistic tendencies and have put my thoughts to paper so that I can better address the problem within myself, I hope it is also helpful to you.